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I am what my friend E calls a “cafeteria Catholic.” I pick and choose what bits and pieces of Catholicism I can agree with and toss the rest.

This drives my mother crazy as she is an old-school Catholic. We’re talking novenas and stations of the cross and ashes on certain Wednesdays.

Growing up, we went to church every Sunday. My father, having been raised Jewish but who has not, to my knowledge, seen the inside of a synagogue in over 30 years, got to stay home. My sister and I were not so lucky. We had to attend even if I feel asleep (which I did often), raised a ruckus beforehand (ditto), or spent the mass doing math (counting how many people I could see, subtracting how many of those people wore hats and so on).

When I was three or four years old, I once crawled forward under the pews while my mother was praying on her knees with her eyes closed, a rosary clasped in her hands. She was not at all pleased when I popped up six rows in front of her and waved. There’s a look that I give the kids when they are misbehaving and I am too far from them to grab hold. It could peel paint from walls – it’s that intense. I learned it from her.

In my mother’s opinion, I have not given my children enough of a religious foundation. And maybe I haven’t. To wit:

An After Dinner Conversation with My Daughter

Nora: Does God have a father?

Me: No. He IS the father. He doesn’t have a father. He has a son, though.

Nora: Only a son? How come not a daughter?

Me: Uh…

Nora: I bet He wanted a daughter, too. Is He married? Who’s His wife?

I start thinking about how to explain virgins, immaculate conception and the progenitor to shot-gun weddings – a visit by an avenging angel on the bridegroom.

Me: Uh…

Nora: You know how Henry and me and Liam were in your body? And then we came out?

Me (cautiously):  Yeah?

Nora: Well, I thought you and Daddy made us.

Me: We did. Technically though, God made everyone. He is everywhere.

Nora: If God is everywhere, is he in outer space too?

Me: Yes.

Nora: The earth is in outer space. Does that mean that God is in outer space?

Me: Mmm-hmm.

Nora: How did the earth get into space? Was God there before space?

Brendan (calling from upstairs): Nora, it’s your turn in the shower!

Me: Go ahead honey. It’s time for bed.

Nora (amiably): Ok.

She hopped off the kitchen stool and presented the top of her head to me. I kissed it, as I have done a thousand times over. Raising her eyes to mine she grinned. “I’ll have lots more questions for you in the morning, Mom.”

You keep asking those tough questions, Nora. Even if Mommy doesn’t have all the answers!


My family is no more (or less) dysfunctional than others—like most, we have our secrets and quirks. However, on the holidays, we drag out our best behavior along with the good china and we gather together. Each of us strives to avoid the hot button issues that we know will ignite old arguments and we all uphold the small traditions to which we are accustomed, at least obligingly if not effortlessly.

As a teenager, I was far less accommodating. I would sulk in corners and make disparaging remarks, then disappear before the dishes were cleared from the table. I’m not sure how my parents withstood my insufferable attitude.

Now, with every passing holiday, I appreciate my family’s particular flavor of dysfunction a little more. Although I cannot dispute that we are an acquired taste, it is one that I prefer over any other.

My husband and I, along with Small, Medium and Large, celebrated Thanksgiving day with my parents, my sister, and my brother and his family. Our blessing went like this:


“Give food to the needy,” my mother added her normal intercession.

“And world peace,” my husband said quietly.

I shot him the Not Now look.

“Oh, yes,” said my mother, gathering momentum for a longer prayer. “And bring our troops home safely and….”

“Yes, yes. That’s fine,” my non-Catholic father interrupted. “Let’s eat.”

Driving home after feasting like Kings—an incredible meal that I know took my mother all week to prepare—I asked the kids what they were thankful for.

“Family,” said Liam.

“Yeah, family,” said Nora. “And for the stars.”

Pleased, I turned in my seat to look at our littlest angel.

“What are you thankful for, Henry?”

“I am thankful for….mythelf,” he said smugly.

I guess he hasn’t acquired the taste as yet.

Even if my children are fully engaged in projects of their own, I can count on at least one of them interrupting me with someone’s urgent need the minute I sneak off for some time to myself.

I consider this psychic phenomena to be one of Life’s small mysteries.

I was busy with a project that I wanted to complete before dinner. As my stolen minutes slipped away, I became increasingly irritable. Determined to complete my task within my self-imposed timeframe, I quietly asked for reinforcement.

My obliging husband came over to help. Ungraciously, I disapproved of his action plan and we bickered over how best to proceed. This is when I heard the phone ringing.

“Don’t answer it!” I shouted to all persons within earshot. “Let it go to voicemail!”

Unwisely, Liam approached me with the phone.

Seeing him coming, I warned him away. “Whoever it is, please tell them that I will call them back.”

“It’s Nana,” he said.

“Liam,” I said, grasping at at a civil tone but not catching it. “I am busy; tell Nana that I will call her back.”

He returned fifteen seconds later. I dropped the heavy object I was carrying but managed to avoid stepping on his foot. Totally exasperated, I yelled at him to get out of the way.

“Nana just has one question!”

“I. Will. Call. Her. Back.” We glared at each other.

“Jeesh,” he muttered as he slunk off with the phone. Taking a deep breath, I knew that the Catholic principles I had spent my childhood steeping in were about to resurface. Guilt lapped over me.

A shower, followed by a glass of red wine, improved my mood significantly. The phone rang. I went out onto the porch to take my mother’s call. I apologized cheerfully for not calling her back right away. Was it something important? What did she need?

Her voice was frosty. “I just wanted to know: Did you watch Kennedy’s funeral?”

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